I’ll go ahead and say it: My prayer life is not where I want it to be. This is something with which I constantly struggle. On the one hand, I have these high ideals of intentional, sustained (read: lengthy), daily prayer. On the other hand, I have the reality, which is . . . not that. So I strive, with varying degrees of success, to make my reality live up to my ideals. How very much like every other aspect of my spiritual life!
I believe this tension between ideal and reality in our spiritual lives is a healthy one. It ensures that we will never stop growing. Still, it can be unsettling to find ourselves so far from our goals, especially with our spiritual practices. This is particularly troubling during those times when I find myself unusually far from where I want to be.
Perhaps you face a similar struggle in your prayer life, or another aspect of your spiritual life. Things have gone stagnant, stale, and you no longer find fulfillment. As you look toward your ideals—drawn from comparison with others or even from your own former practices—you feel the great distance between those ideals and your own lived reality. And rather than encouraging you to grow, that great distance just makes you feel bad and discouraged.
We need encouragement in those times; I often find it beneficial to compare notes, so to speak, with fellow believers who are struggling and succeeding in their walk with Christ in different ways that I am. In that spirit, let me share a few items from my own experience that may offer you encouragement:
- It might not as bad as you think it is. I say that I’m unhappy with my prayer life and I do not pray enough. That sounds bad. But in fact, I pray at least four times a day—before meals and with my son when we put him to bed. For some reason, however, whenever I consider about my prayer life, I don’t consider those moments. Why not? Because they are short, memorized prayers rather than original, lengthy outpourings? They are still daily, habitual connections with God. And I believe God hears those prayers and acts upon my heart . . . even when I don’t feel it explicitly.
- Lift up and celebrate the things you are doing to stay spiritually focused. Rather than being discouraged with your prayer life (or any other aspect of your spiritual life), recognize and celebrate the other ways you stay connected to God. I struggle with regular prayer, but I am much better about regular Scripture reading. I attend worship each week and find deep fulfillment in that. Sometimes it’s best to celebrate the good rather than continually lament the bad.
- Recognize the Spirit’s sighs too deep for words. Take Paul’s words in this Romans 8:26 seriously. There are times when I can simply whisper, “God,” “Thank you,” or “Help.” Those are prayers, too.
- Small changes add up. I find it’s useful not to try to make up the huge distance between my actual practices and my ideals all at once. That seems daunting, and I’m very likely to fail. Instead, I try to make one small change in the right direction.
- It’s not only up to you. Rest assured that there are others praying for you, supporting you, lifting you up. Taking a moment to think about that reality can be a truly powerful thing!
It’s my hope (and prayer!) that you will find encouragement in your own spiritual life. What do you do to find encouragement? How do you live in the tension between your ideals and your lived reality, particularly when it comes to prayer? Tell us in the comments section below!
Brian Sigmon, Ph.D., serves as Editor of the Daily Christian Advocate, the official journal of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, and Adult Teaching & Learning Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House.